Helen Hall Ramaglia is an author, Foster/Adoptive Mother, Speaker and Advocate for kids in foster care. She is Founder and Executive Director of Fostering SuperStars, a nonprofit organization designed to enrich the lives of children placed in foster care by serving as a primary connector to organizations, partnerships and providers to meet many of their needs that would normally go unmet. Fostering SuperStars matches each child with a mentor/advocate, enrolls each child in life skills camp, and ensures that each child receives a seasonal wardrobe twice a year. Fostering SuperStars will also connect each child who desires it with an organization that provides horseback riding/therapy.
Helen says that we must fully understand the heart and life of a foster child before we can effectively foster, adopt or work with this vulnerable population of extraordinary children. She shared her story with The Teen Toolbox blog readers to help America walk in the shoes of a child who has experienced physical, mental and emotional abuse, was removed from everything they had known, was provided shelter from the State and strangers, and thrust into adulthood totally unprepared.
Helen’s early years were filled with violence, trauma, and loss. Helen was thrust into foster care at the age of eleven. Although she had suffered significant abuse from her father and believes that being placed in foster care literally saved her from death at the hands of her father, Helen was re-traumatized by the separation from everything she had known and the uncertainty of what to expect. She never had a chance to say goodbye to anyone and no one explained the foster care system to her nor informed her what would become her home. Helen was even placed in several juvenile detention centers before being placed in a long-term foster home.
Helen was placed in a safe family but still had many unmet needs. She never learned about personal hygiene and grooming from her foster mother and never received counseling services while in care. During her teenage years Helen stopped talking as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her foster parents did not realize the effects of the trauma she had experienced and reacted negatively to many things Helen said or did. When Helen advocated for herself she was labeled as having a “smart mouth”. Because of this experience, Helen warns us that well-meaning foster parents who provide a home free from violence can still “add insult to injury” for the children in their care thus all foster parents should be trained in positive parenting techniques.
In 1976, Helen became the first foster child to leave the United States and live in another country. Without warning or explanation, Helen woke up one morning to find that her sister had been taken from Europe and returned to the US. No one ever came looking for her. She was invisible to a system that did not remain in contact with her to ensure her safety and stability. Helen graduated high school at age 16 and received no guidance or support regarding higher education from her foster family. At age 17 she returned to the US but to a different state from where she departed. Low self-esteem and little valuable communication skills led Helen to sleeping pills. With few options, Helen was married and soon became pregnant because she had never learned about birth control. There was also a time in her young adult life that she experienced homelessness.
Helen had never been taught how to make good decisions but for the first time in her life she was ready to set goals and follow a plan to reach them. She was 35 and decided to write a book. Prior to this awakening, every day in her life was about sheer survival. She lacked basic interpersonal dynamics and knowledge of social norms. She was jittery and nervous and felt that her words had no meaning. The book was a catalyst for Helen to do something with her life and an avenue to “become whole”. She began to watch influential people and read about their personal journeys. Helen also got the courage to reach out to people and connect as a way of filling personal gaps in her life.
Helen’s book From Foster To Fabulous – One Little Girl’s Journey Through Abuse, Foster Care, Aging Out and Life Beyond helps us all understand the emotional baggage that weighs many children in foster care down. Her faith in God got her through many terrible ordeals and she believes that all children can find it in themselves to overcome obstacles with guidance and support.
When asked what we can do to better support teen girls in foster care, Helen replied that every girl should be connected with lifetime mentorship. A person (not an authority figure) who will not leave them when they age out but stick with them, teach them about life, and connect them with needed resources. She also believes that we should do a better job of training foster parents and holding schools and workers accountable to ensure that children are safe and thriving. Helen also wishes that every child in foster care could have a stand in family during the holidays which can be very challenging for many young people.
Helen truly found her voice at age 45. She and her husband became foster parents to a special needs sibling group of two toddlers and an infant who had been in seven prior placements. She began to fight for them and has never looked back. The Ramaglia family has adopted the toddlers who are now thriving 6 and 7 year olds. Helen and her husband are also the parents of two biological children. Helen is a 2012 Angel in Adoption Award winner, a Points of Light award winner, and trainer. She is using her voice to advocate for changes for all children in foster care.
As we wrap up our 6th Annual Pack A Purse Drive™ in December 2012, we will use the Teen Toolbox blog as a platform to spread inspiration and hope by highlighting the triumphs of successful women foster care alumni.
Nicki Sanders, MSW, Chief Visionary Officer
The Teen Toolbox provides youth portfolio development and civic engagement and academic empowerment strategies to help teens set goals for life after high school and create a road map to reach those goals through its PACKAGED FOR SUCCESS™ Programs. We are committed to supporting and raising awareness about the needs and potential of teenagers in the foster care system.